Family critical of plea deal in shooting

Boyfriend gets probation after woman's death

The parents of a Lenoir City woman shot by her boyfriend are speaking out against a plea bargain that sentenced their daughter's killer to five years on probation.

"I want justice for my daughter," said Sarah Berry, mother of Savannah Cass McMahan, 21, who was shot by John Kenneth Harvey, 26, in February 2008.

Harvey, who was originally charged with second-degree murder, admits that he shot the woman during an argument but claims it was an accident. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to reckless homicide.

McMahan's mother, divorced from the victim's father, said she and her husband met several times with the district attorney general's office to discuss the case. From the beginning, she said, they were encouraged to avoid a trial.

"They said if there was a trial that our daughter's name would be dragged through the mud," she said.

Bill Reedy, assistant district attorney general for the 9th Judicial District, said his office did the best it could to secure a conviction.

"We did not have a lot of evidence of guilt," he said.

The victim's father, John McMahan, still lives on the property where his daughter was shot. He said he was never consulted about the evidence in the case or the plea bargain, even though he believes his testimony might have been useful.

McMahan said he witnessed the couple's frequent arguments and what he called "bullying" by Harvey.

"She said she was going to leave him several times before the shooting," he said. "I know that's why he shot her, because she said she was going to leave."

Berry said that in her third meeting with the district attorney general's office, she was told about a "dying declaration" made by her daughter as she lay bleeding on the floor waiting for the ambulance.

"They said that a witness would testify that he heard Cass say she knew it was an accident," Berry said.

The witness was Nathan Lane, a roommate who said he was sleeping when the argument occurred. Lane says Harvey woke him up shortly after the shooting. It was Lane who made the call for the ambulance.

In an interview last week, Reedy cited Lane's testimony about the dying declaration as one of two important factors that might have allowed Harvey to walk away from a trial with a verdict of not guilty.

Lane, who still lives in the house where the shooting occurred, says that he never heard a dying declaration and never agreed to testify to hearing it.

"By the time I saw her she was already going into convulsions. She didn't say a thing to me," Lane said.

Lane said that shortly after the shooting occurred, he told investigators that Harvey told him the victim made statements about the shooting being an accident.

Reedy admits that there was some confusion about the testimony. Lane could still have been called to testify that he heard about the dying declaration not from the victim herself, but from the defendant, he said.

The victim's mother said she was very upset to learn this week that such potentially exculpatory evidence might not even exist. The judge would have excluded such secondhand testimony as hearsay, she said.

"They say he heard it from the man who shot my daughter," she said. "What kind of evidence is that?"

Don Bosch, attorney for Harvey, said he thought the resolution of the case was appropriate and consistent for such a tragic accident. He disagreed with Lane's recent statements about not hearing the dying declaration.

"That is inconsistent with our investigation," he said.

Another important part of the decision not to go to trial was ballistics testimony from an expert witness who was to testify that the shooting was an accident. A TBI ballistics investigator had determined that the shooting was no accident.

"The defense went out and hired probably the top ballistics expert in the country," Reedy said. "Our expert could not refute their expert."

The victim's father said he was not impressed with the defense expert.

"I've fired that same gun before," he said. "It was a single action. He had to deliberately cock that gun before he could fire it."

He said he would have preferred to let a jury decide whether to believe the TBI report or an expert who was paid by the defense.